B.C. government requests help from feds over widespread public drug use

By Quinn Patrick

The B.C. government is looking for help from Ottawa as public drug use becomes common since implementing its drug decriminalization pilot project last year. 

The provincial government attempted to implement limits through legislation but its efforts were derailed by a B.C. Supreme Court injunction. 

B.C. Mental Health Minister Jennifer Whiteside will meet with her federal counterpart,  Ya’ara Saks, in Vancouver Friday to ask the Liberal government for help.

Whitehead is asking that Saks review the current exemptions in place under the province’s decriminalization pilot project, as certain public spaces remain available for drug use.  

“With respect to (decriminalization), we’ll be having a conversation about how the exemptions are working to this point,” Whiteside told the Globe and Mail in an interview Thursday.

Whitehead is also seeking federal assistance with increased supervision at drug-consumption sites. 

Illicit drug use in B.C.’s beaches, parks and hospitals has exploded since the decriminalization pilot project came into effect Jan. 31, 2023, sparking backlash from the public. 

The project allowed drug users to possess and use small amounts of certain toxic drugs like fentanyl in public without fear of arrest or legal consequences. 

The Trudeau government granted the decriminalization request for a three-year trial period.

Spaces including school premises, playgrounds, child-care facilities, airports, and skate parks are still prohibited under the project. 

However, a little over a year into the three-year project, urban mayors throughout the province are calling the situation of widespread public drug use a ‘crisis.’

According to senior police officials who testified before a parliamentary committee last week, the project was implemented without the necessary guardrails in place to retain public order. 

Hospital workers also noticed a spike in the use of illicit substances in patient rooms and bathrooms, including in the maternity unit, which hospital workers say puts them and their patients at risk.

The provincial government attempted to add further prohibited areas via the Restricting Public Consumption of Illegal Substances Act last November, which would allow police to fine or arrest people who refuse to comply with orders regarding certain outdoor spaces like beaches and parks. 

The law was suspended by B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkon last December following a challenge by the Harm Reduction Nurses Association.

In his decision, Hinkon wrote that the new legislation “will cause irreparable harm” by pushing drug use out of the public eye, which he believed was safer out in the open, “given a dire lack of supervised consumption services, indoor locations to consume drugs, and housing.”

British Columbia’s NDP premier, David Eby, has continued to face mounting criticism from the public and opposition politicians for going all in on his government’s controversial drug decriminalization agenda.

“We are looking at other options in light of the Supreme Court’s decision with respect to the injunction that prevents us from implementing that legislation, and that’s the conversation that we’re certainly having inside government, and that we’ll be having with the federal government,” said Whiteside.

The province set a record of 2,511 suspected illicit drug deaths in 2023, despite the decriminalization pilot.